ZIMBABWEANS providing cheap labour in the fast-growing Chinese mines bear the brunt of extremely harsh conditions and low wages, a Johannesburg-based advocacy group, Southern Africa Resource Watch (SARW) reveals in its research, the first such report detailing China's labour practices in the country.
Hard labour, exposure to risky conditions, violation of labour laws, long working hours, non payment of overtime, disregard of public holidays and use of Chinese language in corporate literature were among extreme conditions faced by workers at most Chinese interests in Zimbabwe, the report said.
Launched in Lusaka, Zambia, two weeks ago after an extensive investigation into Chinese operations in SADC, the report, titled 'Win-Win Partnerships? China, Southern Africa and Extractive Industries', offers new insights into Chinese investors' controversial business practices in a region that is increasingly looking East for foreign direct investment (FDI).
"The culprits are the small Chinese mining companies," said SARW. "Most Chinese mining firms exceed the legally stipulated working hours of eight hours per day. They generally work 12 to 18 hours.
"At Makwiro platinum concessions, workers complained that they do not get overtime for the 12 hours per day they work, and are instead asked to take time off. Local holidays are not observed. Protective clothing (if any) was also said to be in short supply, and workers had been observed wearing their own clothes for work."
"While some mining houses have put up reasonable accommodation for their employees, this is an area still in need of attention, especially among the new investors," the report reveals.
It said the Chinese had violated labour laws but hinted that the Asians generally enjoyed government protection.
"Another bone of contention between trade unions and Chinese mining firms has been their use of contract labour in violation of the Labour Relations Act," said SARW.
"Contract labour is generally preferred. Neither are minimum wages observed. Chinese firms now suffer the common allegations that they export jobs by bringing in workers for the meanest tasks like opening the main company gate.
"A minister from one SADC countries who visited the Chinese company, Anjin, which is mining diamonds in Marange, was disturbed to find that it was a Chinese person who was opening the gate," the report added.
SARW also gave a sad overview of Chinese labour practices in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Africa.
At Luanshaya Copper Mines in Zambia, SARW investigators exposed unequal treatment of Zambian workers.
"Information gathered suggests that for the same kind of job done by a local and a Chinese employee, a Chinese staff member is being paid three times more than a Zambian," said the report.
It said a trend toward the casualisation of labour in Zambia, where President Michael Sata had threatened Chinese investments, had raised concerns about workers' security.
"Employees interviewed said they were very concerned about their job security, as they are hired and fired at will," said SARW.
In the DRC, conditions of work in Chinese companies are generally harsh, it said.
"The research team was told a story of a company called Magma Mining which used to let its Congolese employees sleep with the minerals in the store rooms. The managers have refused to accept the presence of worker's unions in their installations. It is widely assumed that to work in a Chinese-owned plant is to experience considerable hardship and that Chinese owned enterprises are particularly harsh work environments. In several country studies, informants were highly critical of these conditions at Chinese owned plants."
SARW, however, singled out Sino Steel in Zimbabwe as one of the Chinese firms putting considerable efforts towards improving working conditions at its ZIMASCO operation in Gweru.
ZIMASCO employs over 2 700 workers at the operation.
Recent reports said a trade union investigating unfair labour practices at a Chinese firm where 60 workers were fired received a "directive from high offices" to drop the case.
Workers at a Chinese firm in Harare's Graniteside industrial estate were reportedly being locked in a factory during an 18 hour shift to prevent them from stealing.
In a much publicised incident, government courted public ire after granting a Chinese firm the greenlight to construct a hotel in Harare even as an Environmental Impact Assessment warned of dire consequences to fauna and flora.
Zimbabwe has depended on Chinese investments for a decade and appears politically weak to speak out against excessive violations taking place in these mines. The Chinese built the National Sport Stadium, funded the construction of a defence college and donated a US$11 million plane, fortifying their influence in the country.
But as events in South Africa's Marikana Mines recently showed, boiling anger among abused labourers can trigger uncontrolled revolts. China has prioritised African countries in its strategic move to influence the region's politics and economics, and link the continent's commodity and consumer markets to its vastly expanding industries.
Africa-China trade statistics indicate that shipments climbed to over US$100 billion in 2010 from less than US$5 billion in 2000, with its development assistance in the region rapidly increasing.